March 2010 Archives

March 31, 2010

Burden of Proof in Florida Unemployment Compensation Hearings

After being terminated from a job, an employee may apply for Unemployment Compensation benefits through the State of Florida Agency of Workforce Administration. The employer will be notified of the application and given a chance to respond. An agency administrator will then make a decision based on the paperwork submitted by the two parties. The losing party will be advised of the decision and given the right to appeal. If an appeal is taken, the matter will be set for an evidentiary hearing before an appeals referee.

Hearings are usually conducted by telephone, with the appeals referee contacting the parties from his or her office in Tallahassee, Florida. If the employee will be represented at the hearing by an attorney, the appeals referee should be provided with this information in writing in advance, including where to contact the employee (usually at the attorney's office).

Importantly, no matter which party is the appellant, i.e., the party challenging the administrative ruling, at the evidentiary hearing the burden of proving misconduct* to deny benefits is always on the employer. Cullen v. Neighborly Senior Services, 775 So.2d 392 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000). Not only is the burden of proof on the employer, but the proof must be by a preponderance of the evidence. Tallahassee Housing Authority v. Unemployment Appeals Commission, 483 So.2d 413 (Fla. 1986).

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March 30, 2010

Satisfying the Workers' Compensation Lien in Florida - The Manfredo Formula

Frequently, employees hurt on the job can be compensated for their damages by third persons (i.e., someone other than the employer). This is so when the employee is injured or killed in the course of his or her employment by the negligence or wrongful act of a third-party tortfeasor.

Regardless of fault, Florida employees hurt while working are entitled to receive workers' compensaiton benefits. Typically, those benefits, medical and indemnity (i.e., lost wages), are furnished by a workers' compensation insurance company or a self-insured employer. When they are, Section 440.39(2) Florida Statutes gives the provider subrogation rights against the third party tortfeasor to the extent of the amount of compensation benefits paid. This is commonly referred to as a workers' compensation lien.

Very rarely is the amount recovered through the lien equal to 100% of the benefits paid. The lien formula, outlined in 440.39(3)(a), is explained in Manfredo v. Employer's Casualty Insurance Company, 560 So.2d 1162 (Fla 1990).

Here is the formula in a nutshell, along with an example: Third party settlement amount less (-) attorney fees and costs divided by (/) full case value = the % value of the wc lien.

Example:


  • WC lien (medical, indemnity, settlement, etc.): $ 100,000

  • $ 250,000 third party settlement less fees (40%) and costs = $ 135,000

  • Full case value: $ 1,000,000. (Settled for less due to tough liability, coverage limits, etc.)

  • $ 135,000 divided by $ 1,000,000 = 13.5%

  • 13.5% of $ 100,000 = $ 13,500.

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March 28, 2010

To-Do Checklist for Florida Motor Vehicle (Car/Truck) Accidents

auto accident.jpg


  • Contact fire rescue (for injuries) and the police from the accident scene.

  • Take photographs of the vehicles - damage and location.

  • Photograph visible injuries.

  • Obtain names and contact information of independent eyewitnesses.

  • Cooperate with law enforcement. Describe the accident and provide your motor vehicle insurance information.

  • Before leaving the scene, obtain a copy of the short form police report or other police report identifying information.

  • If your vehicle must be towed from the accident, determine by whom and to where. Remove personal belongings before the vehicle is towed away.

  • If necessary, allow fire rescue to transport you to the hospital.

  • Provide fire rescue and the hospital with your vehicle and health insurance information.(The "PIP" coverage under your own insurance policy is primarily responsible for paying for a limited dollar amount of your medical care.)

  • Report the accident to your insurance company.

  • Obtain claim number from your insurance carrier.

  • If necessary, seek follow up medical care.

  • Provide medical providers with your vehicle and health insurance information.

  • The at-fault party's Florida insurance company should pay for your vehicle damage. In some instances, it is easier to have your own insurance company handle the repairs. However, not every insurance policy covers the cost of such repairs. It is not required coverage. Check your policy to see if you have "Collision" coverage. (Be careful of what you say to the at-fault party's insurance company. The company will be looking for ways to deny your claim.)

  • If your injuries are serious, contact a personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. The lawyer will handle a myriad of issues associated with your accident, including medical matters, insurance coverage, vehicle repair or total loss payments, etc.
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March 26, 2010

Florida Follows "Reasonable Expectation" Test for Harmful Substances in Food

The standard in Florida for determining fault for injuries caused by harmful substances in food is known as the "reasonable expectation" test. Examples of harmful substances include bones, shells, and pits, not only substances completely foreign to food products such as metal, human nails, and bugs.

Obviously, claims resulting from foreign objects are easier to win than claims involving substances natural to the basic food product, but the "reasonable expectation" test nevertheless provides a basis for prevailing in the latter situation.

Not every jurisdiction within the United States follows the "reasonable expectation" test. Some jurisdictions represent the view that as a matter of law a harmful substance present in food which is natural to it cannot be common law negligence or a legal defect or breach of the implied warranty of reasonable fitness of such food. Florida has rejected this test as not being logical or desirable. Zabner v. Howard Johnson's, Inc., 201 So.2d 824 (Fla. App. 4 Dist., 1967).

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March 24, 2010

Florida Unemployment Compensation - Benefits Available to the Justly Fired

To the surprise of many, Florida employees justly terminated from their jobs may nevertheless be entitled to receive unemployment compensation benefits. In other words, although an employee's actions may justify discharge, the same conduct does not necessarily preclude entitlement to unemployment benefits. Betancourt v. Sun Bank Miami, N.A., 672 So.2d 37 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1996).

For Unemployment Compensation benefits to be denied, an employee's behavior must rise to the level of "misconduct," defined as acting willfully, wantonly, or be in substantial disregard of the employer's interest. See ยงยง 443.036(29), and 443.101, Fla. Stat.

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March 23, 2010

Tort "Deform" - My Opinion

Along with the right to vote, a free and vigorous jury system is a key element in the ability of Americans to control the type of society in which they live. Efforts by state and federal politicians at placing arbitrary caps on the amount of damages available to parties in civil cases is a direct attack on the jury system, and thus the power of the citizenry to control their own society.

Juries should be allowed to award the full measure of damages justified by the facts of each case after engaging in thoughtful deliberations. For the most part, their verdicts are dead-on appropriate. To argue otherwise is to ignore a large body of statistical evidence and question the ability of everyday people to judge wisely. Moreover, in those rare instances where a jury decides incorrectly, the aggrieved parties, be they the plaintiffs or the defendants, have available to them many tools (e.g. retrial; appeal; etc.) to correct the error.

Arbitrary damage award caps provide immunity from full accountability and should be opposed. Our civil jury system works exceedingly well and should remain free of arbitrary constraints.

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March 22, 2010

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) - Exemptions Become the Rule

Exemptions are so common in FLSA cases that practitioners accepting new cases are wise to consider the possibility in all but the most obvious situations. Along with determining the amount of overtime hours, if any, logged by employees, disputes over the applicability or not of exemptions have formed the lion share of litigation in the FLSA cases handled in my office.

Common exemptions include (typically, salaried employees):

  • Executives

  • Administrators

  • Professional

  • Outside sales workers

  • Some computer workers

Knowing the case law is a must, but can be frustrating and confusing as the decisions, both regarding factual patterns and legal pronouncements, run the gamut. In some cases, the practitioner is unable to make a clear determination. In those instances, instinct is often the best judge of whether or not a case should be pursued.

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March 21, 2010

Recording/Wiretapping Phone Calls & Conversations Without Consent Prohibited in Florida

It is both a crime (3rd degree felony - Section 934.03(4) Florida Statutes), and an actionable civil violation (934.10) to record phone calls in Florida without the prior consent of the party or parties being recorded.

Exceptions do apply, see Cohen Brothers, LLC v. ME Corp., S.A., 872 So.2d 321 (Fla. 3DCA 2004), Jatar v. Lamaletto, 758 So.2d 1167 (Fla. 3DCA 2000), cause dismissed 786 So.2d 1186, and Stevenson v. State, 667 So.2d 410 (Fla 1DCA 1996), rehearing denied, but the general rule is that non-consensual recordings are prohibited.

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March 20, 2010

Florida's 2008 PIP Law Simplifies Out-of-Pocket Medical Expenses Determination

Unlike prior PIP statutes that applied the "usual and customary" standard to determine allowable charges for medical services, Florida's 2008 version (627.736), mostly mandates that allowable charges are 200% of prospective payments for the same services under Medicare Parts A & B. (Main exceptions: emergency transportation and emergency hospital services.)

For the most part, the Medicare tie-in reduces the amounts payable to medical providers, and because the PIP statute also explicity prohibits medical providers from balance billing beyond the 20% remaining after PIP's 80% payment of allowable charges (627.736(5)(a)5.), the Plaintiff's (patient) out-of-pocket medical expenses are likewise reduced. No longer may a medical provider seek full reimbursement from the patient for charges unpaid after the receipt of PIP payments. Doing so under the 2008 PIP statute is an actionable offense.

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March 16, 2010

Children/Parental Liability Waivers & The 2010 Florida Legislature

In December, 2008, the Florida Supreme Court, in Kirton v. Fields, 997 So.2d 349 (Fla., 2008), held that a pre-injury release executed by a parent on behalf of a minor child is unenforceable against the minor or the minor's estate in a tort action arising from injuries resulting from participation in a commercial activity.

In Kirton, 14 year old Christopher Jones died in an ATV crash at a motorsports park. Prior to the crash, his father had signed a release and waiver of liability, assumption of risk, and indemnity agreement to allow his son to ride at the park. Subsequently, Fields, as personal representative of the estate of Christopher Jones, filed suit for wrongful death against Spencer Kirton, Scott Corey Kirton, Dudley Kirton, and the Kirton Brother Lawn Service, Inc. ("the Kirtons") as owners and operators of Thunder Cross Motor Sports. The trial court entered an order granting the Kirtons' motion for summary judgment on the wrongful death claim, finding that there was no genuine issue of material fact because the release executed by Mr. Jones on behalf of his minor child, Christopher, barred the claim. On appeal, the Fourth District reversed the trial court's order granting the motion for summary judgment. The Florida Supreme Court's majority opinon - one dissent (Wells, J) and two non-participants (Canady and Polston, JJ) - resulted from an appeal of the 4th DCA's decision.

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March 14, 2010

"IME," "Independent Medical Examination," & "Peer Review" - Says Who? (Florida Law)

law books.jpgFlorida Statues may allow PIP carriers to conduct medical examinations and perform paper reviews, but no authority, including the statute itself, grants PIP carriers license to reference those procedures as an "IME," "Independent Medical Examination," or a "Peer Review." In short, PIP carriers have created the terms out of whole cloth to mislead juries.

The doctors are not independent or conducting peer reviews. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary's only definition of "peer review" is: a process by which something proposed (as for research or publication) is evaluated by a group of experts in the appropriate field.) They are hired by the defense and paid by the defense. If the jury hears that doctors are "independent" or a "Peer Review," the jury may be confused into believing or thinking the doctors were appointed by the court, a governing body, or with the approval of the Plaintiff or the Plaintiff's attorney.

When preparing for trial, the Plaintiff's attorney should consider moving the court for an In Limine order preventing the insurance company from perpetuating the falsehood.

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March 11, 2010

Florida's Dangerous Instrumentality Doctrine & The Graves Amendment

A well-established common law principle in Florida is that motor vehicles are "dangerous instrumentalities." Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson, 86 So. 629 (Fla. 1920). In 1941, the Florida Supreme Court held that because the use of a dangerous instrumentality involves such a high degree of risk of serious injury or death, whoever deals in such instrumentalities must exercise the "highest degree of care." Skinner v. Ochiltree, 5 So.2d 605 (1941). This decree is consistent with the court's opinion that "as the risk grows greater, so does the duty, because the risk to be perceived defines the duty that must be undertaken." McCain v. Florida Power Corp., 593 So.2d 500 (Fla. 1992).

Until 2005, this longstanding and reasonable principle of law applied to both individual private vehicle owners and billion dollar rental car agencies alike. However, with the passage into law of the Graves Amendment, the U.S. Congress and the Bush Administration (George W. Bush), allowed rental car agencies across the country to escape liability for serious personal injuries caused by their rental vehicles.

The constitutionality of the law is being challenged in courts across the nation. One of the main arguments in opposition to the federal law is that the individual states should be allowed to create laws that effect its own residents. The constitutionality issue will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

March 10, 2010

Florida Mediation - Meaning of "Full Authority"

FRCP 1.720 and most court orders require parties to appear at mediation with "full authority" to settle without further consultation. See also Carbino v. Ward, 801 So.2d 1028 (Fla. 5th DCA 2001) and Physicians Protective Trust Fund v. Overman, 636 So.2d 827 (Fla. 5th DCA 1994).

A hypothetical personal injury case will be used here to illustrate the importance and meaning of the law:
The plaintiff's last demand before mediation was $500,000, while the defendant has valued the case at $75,000. For the defendant to be in compliance with Rule 1.720, its representative must attend mediation with the authority to settle for $500,000 (or policy limits, whichever is less). This does not mean that the defendant must accept plaintiff's demand. All it means is that the representative must have the authority to pay $500,000 without further consultation. (The rule is less clear as it relates to plaintiffs, especially when the defendant has not made a pre-mediation offer, but it is arguable that the plaintiff or its representative must be able to accept any proposal made by the defendant without further consultation.)

On its face, the rule may seem silly. However, it makes sense. The purpose of the rule is to encourage and promote the settlement of cases. The rule requires representatives to have flexibility to adjust to circumstances as they arise during mediation, even if it does not require the actual exercise of that flexibility. Without having the requisite "full authority", a representative is unable to adjust his/her position during mediation. (Examples of circumstances that sometimes motivate parties to alter their views during mediation are endless. Some of the more common examples include: the presentation of explosive eyewitness affidavits; the surprise appearance of a newly-hired heavy-hitting top-gun trial lawyer in place of an inexperienced attorney; the surfacing of key missing documents; new test results; et cetera.)

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March 9, 2010

2010 Florida Legislature Targeting Premises Liability/Slip & Fall Law

slip-and-fall.jpgCurrent Florida law allows individuals injured in slip & fall accidents to prove fault against business establishments through evidence of inadequate maintenance policies and procedures. Owens v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 802 So. 2d 315 (Fla. 2001) and Section 768.0710 Florida Statutes. If the 2010 Republican-dominated Florida Legislature has its way, this consumer-friendly law will be eliminated. (See Senate Bill 1224 and House Bill 689.) If so, businesses establishments will have one less reason to perform routine inspections and maintenance to keep their premises safe.

March 6, 2010

Florida's Sovereign Immunity Law is Unfair and Dangerous

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln declared that we are a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Sadly, this message has not registered with Florida lawmakers. (Please see this blog for a significant modification of this statement.)

As should be the case, individuals and corporations whose negligence causes harm in Florida must pay full compensation for the damage caused by those acts. (Major exception: doctors and medical facilities.) For example, if a civil jury renders a verdict against driver A in the amount of $1,000,000 for crashing into the rear of driver B at 60 mph while operating a company vehicle, a judgment in that amount will be entered by the court against driver A and the company. (Whether or not driver A and the company have the capacity to pay, through insurance or otherwise, is another issue.)

Unfortunately, this would not be the outcome if the at-fault vehicle were owned by the government. In that situation, Florida law (768.28(5)) nullifies the voice of the jury, only allowing the judge to enter a judgment against the government (e.g., city, state, governmental agency, village, etc.) in the amount of $100,000. That's right. The government is not subject to the considered decision of the jury. If that isn't bad enough, when the negligence occurs at the planning level stage, instead of at the operational stage, the government has absolute immunity from being sued. This means that a lawsuit will not be allowed to proceed against the government when the negligence occurs at the planning stage.

Parties held fully accountable for the consequences of their actions learn to modify their behavior for the better. Those not held accountable, do not learn or modify. This is the problem with Florida's sovereign (i.e., government) immunity law. The sovereign acts with impunity because the consequences of its bad acts are de minimus. I say take away the government's sovereign immunity. Make it equally accountable as private individuals and corporations. Maybe then the sovereign will act as it should, with due regard for the health, safety, and welfare of the people, instead of the other way around. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, we are a "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

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March 5, 2010

Insureds Beware - Florida Courts Allow Carriers to Void PIP Policies

law books.jpgPersonal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance is mandatory in Florida for owners of operational motor vehicles and usually provides coverage up to $10,000 for medical benefits and lost wages. In many instances, the coverage will extend to other individuals besides just the owner of the vehicle.

After choosing a carrier, the vehicle owner must complete an insurance application to obtain the coverage. Most applications require that all drivers residing in a household be listed. The purpose of this requirement is for the insurance company to be able to properly assess its risk to determine the appropriate premium (i.e., cost of the policy).

Section 627.409 Florida Statutes gives the insurer the right to deny coverage if a misrepresentation in the insurance application is: (1) fraudulent; (2) material to the risk being assumed; or (3) the insurer in good faith either would not have issued the policy or would have done so only on different terms had the insurer known the facts.

Most people would agree that an insurance company should be allowed to deny coverage to an undisclosed driver injured in an accident while driving the covered vehicle. Quite simply, the carrier should not be required to provide coverage to someone on whose behalf an insurance premium was not paid. A more problematic scenario involves the question of coverage for a listed driver injured in an accident while driving the covered vehicle, where the carrier learns that an unlisted listed driver also resides in the household. Regretably, the trend in Florida seems to be towards allowing carriers to deny coverage to the disclosed driver. See United Auto. Ins. v. Salgado , No. 3D07-461 (Fla. App. 8/5/2009) (Fla. App., 2009).

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March 4, 2010

Injured Workers Hurt by Florida Legislature

Injured workers in Florida suffered a major setback in May 2009, when the Florida Legislature adopted a workers' compensation bill which significantly limits the amount of fees their attorneys may recover from workers' compensation insurance companies for forcing them to pay benefits through litigation. Not surprisingly, the Republican-controlled legislature failed to pass a similar measure limiting the amount of fees insurance companies may pay their own lawyers to defend against paying benefits to injured workers.

In a last minute about-face, the Florida Senate, led by Jeff Atwater (R), abandoned its own fair bill in favor of the House version sponsored by South Florida Representative, Anitere Flores (R). The surprise move came just one day after Senate President Atwater announced from the Senate podium that the Senate preferred its version of the workers' compensation bill over the House's version.

The legislature's action was in response to a Florida Supreme Court decision handed down in October, 2008, in Emma Murray vs. Mariner Health and ACE USA, 994 So. 2d 1051 (Fla. 2008), a case which held, in essence, that fees paid to claimants' attorneys must be reasonable. The 2009 Florida Legislature felt otherwise, choosing instead to craft legislation which removed the word "reasonable" from 440.34, the section of the Florida statute dealing with claimant's attorney's fees. As a result, employers and carriers ordered by workers' compensation judges to furnish wrongly denied benefits no longer have to pay the claimant's attorney reasonable fees for successfully securing the benefits.

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March 1, 2010

Comparative Fault in Florida Personal Injury Negligence Cases

Tort "deformers" purposely fail to make full disclosure in their holy war against the civil law justice system. A prominent example of something not being divulged is the well-established principle of law commonly known in Florida as Comparative Fault or Contributory Fault/Negligence. Quite simply, this concept provides that the Plaintiff's degree of fault, if any, will be held against him or her in a claim against others arising out of an accident resulting in injury or death.

In every personal injury case, the degree of damage (injury or death; economic losses) sustained by the Plaintiff equals 100%. If the defendant or defendants - the parties being blamed [by the Plaintiff] for causing the accident - are found by a jury to be 100% at fault, they will be responsible for paying 100% of the Plaintiff's damages. If, however, the Plaintiff is found to be at-fault in any degree for causing the accident, his or her recovery will be reduced accordingly. For example, if a jury determines that the Plaintiff has sustained damages totaling $200,000, but also finds that the Plaintiff is 25% at-fault, the Plaintiff's net recovery will be $150,000.

This principle of Comparative Fault is just one of many legal concepts never mentioned by those forces bound and determined to bar the courthouse doors from the men, women, and children of this state in need of legal redress.

Stay tuned for further examples.

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